Recently I got an email, sent to a largish list of semi-anonymous people (the sender knows us all, but we don't know each other and aren't a "community"), asking "can you give me some advice about why I don't have a job yet?". Having now received several more requests and questions from this same person, it's pretty clear to me that the answer is "because you really need a job right now." The sad truth is, you can't get a job when you NEED a job. The most desirable candidates are the ones who can pick and choose, and who are coming to an employer because that employer is their very best fit. The least desirable candidates are the ones who might not enjoy the work or have career plans that involve that employer for decades or even years, but have a rent payment due so they have to take SOMETHING and this is the only thing going.
This little irony or paradox is not confined to job hunting. Say you want to borrow some money because you lost your job, your SO left you and you have to pay all the rent by yourself, and your car broke. You NEED the money, and not a bank in the world will lend it to you. But if you just finished high school, have no income other than the student loans you expect to receive, and no plans to work within the next few years, you can have an unsecured credit card. You don't need the money, and that's what makes it safe to lend it to you. Here's a tip for young people: when you first get a job, and have a nice income, but no mortgage or other payments, borrow 5 or 10 thousand dollars. Put it in a savings account, make the payments like clockwork using the money from the savings account, and you will have a lovely credit rating, because you borrowed money and paid it back. Better still, put it in your retirement savings and make the payments out of your income -- you'll get a lovely credit rating and a lump of retirement savings that can compound for the next 40 years. It's not just money that follows the "it's better not to need it" rules -- most of us learned in high school that lonely people make very few friends and go on very few dates, but the popular people get invited to everything and never sit alone.
The only way around the paradox is to act less needy than you feel. The simplest rule to describe this is "give before you take." Before you ask someone for something, give them something - typically information. In many cases, you can give them "I am a terrific candidate for your job". Just changing your attitude from "please please I need you to give me this" to "you are lucky today because I am just what you need" makes a huge difference. I blogged about that over three years ago, with some specific advice about knowing what you want.
Give before you take can extend into so much else as well. Do you call people and say "what are you doing tomorrow?" That makes me really uncomfortable. I am always doing SOMETHING - even lying around on the couch and watching TV - and if I say "nothing" then I may have accepted an invitation sight-unseen. So before you take information about my plans, give me information about why you're asking. "I've got a spare Jays ticket for tomorrow, would you like to come?" or "I have to move on short notice and I need friends to help load the van" or "I'm by the side of the road and need someone to come and get me" work fine all by themselves without the dance of "are you doing anything right now / tomorrow night / this weekend ?" preceding them. Sales guys call me up and say things like "so, does your company accept credit cards?" and while it's not a secret or anything (we do) it rankles me that they want that information but I don't know why I should give it to them. I'd be way happier with "I represent a credit card processing company, and we <whatever they do.> We can save you money if you already take credit cards, or get you set up if you don't. Do you accept credit cards already?"
I try to give before I take in everything I do. Before I ask a new client for a deposit or a commitment, I give them a proposal. Before I ask questions of the candidate in a job interview, I tell them a little about us. I do good deeds where I can and rarely ask for favours. On mailing lists, forums, newsgroups, or active blog comment threads, I answer other people's questions before I ask one of my own. And I blog, which is a form of giving information to many many people at once. Some day I may ask you a question, and if you read my blog you'll remember that I gave before I asked.
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